PORT ANGELES — A beaver skull. A fossil of a bivalve preserved in a rock from the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. A taxidermy pangolin. One-of-a-kind artist’s books. A microscope.
All featured in the “Science Stories: A Collaboration of Book Artists and Scientists” exhibit at the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center that closed May 29, and all stolen sometime between the time Executive Director Christine Loewe turned on the security alarm system and left the Esther Webster Gallery at 8 p.m. April 17 and when she arrived the following morning to find the 7- by 6-foot window next to the entrance shattered.
“We always knew we were vulnerable in this space,” Loewe said of the gallery, which is off the street, hidden behind tall trees and whose entrance is shielded from view by a walled courtyard.
The adjacent and heavily wooded Webster’s Woods Sculpture Park that is open to the public is susceptible to criminal behavior as well.
“We have seen some vandalism like graffiti on the trees and benches and damage done to sculpture,” she said.
But nothing compared with the April burglary.
It was not just the act of smashing the window and breaking into the building, but the odd selection of 10 items the intruder or intruders chose to steal that have baffled the fine arts center staff and law enforcement.
Why grab a fossil with little street value and ignore a laptop just steps away from it?
Why swipe a $150 handheld digital microscope and leave behind a monitor that was worth much more?
Why ignore several Apple computers and instead loot beautiful, if not particularly valuable, artist’s books?
“It’s just very bizarre,” Loewe said. “It has turned all of our staff into armchair detectives because of the distinctive and special nature of the items that were taken.”
Deputy Chief Jason Viada of the Port Angeles Police Department admitted that a break-in at a cultural institution and the nature of the items stolen were uncommon for Port Angeles.
“That is a rare thing,” Viada said. “This is not usual.”
Truly rare was the taxidermy pangolin, which, like the other stolen artifacts, was on loan from the Slater Museum of Natural History in Tacoma. The shy mammal covered with armored scales is the most trafficked animal on earth, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“At one level, they are irreplaceable as the information contained in these specimens is irreplaceable,” said Peter Wimberger, biology professor at University of Puget Sound and director of Slater, in an email. “Because all pangolin species are critically endangered, it would be impossible to get permits to collect another one.”
He estimated the value of a specimen like the one taken in the fine arts center burglary as “in the thousands of dollars.”
None of the stolen items have been recovered, although the Port Angeles Police Department has identified a suspect.
“The case is open and active, and officers have received information regarding the suspect,” Viada said.
The City of Port Angeles, which owns the gallery and sculpture garden, will foot the bill for replacing the window, said Parks & Recreation Department director Corey Delikat. Due to supply issues, he estimated it will be another five weeks before a window is installed. The city does not yet know the cost.
A bright mural now covers the empty window where the person or persons broke the glass next to the south entrance to the gallery. Loewe said it took artist Cammry Lapka three days to paint the hummingbird, daffodils, hyacinth, pansies and ferns that decorate the mural’s surface.
That Lapka donated her time and talents to helping the PAFAC characterized the outpouring of support, kindness and encouragement it had received from the community, Loewe said.
“We were surprised just how quickly they rallied around,” she said.
It was not just the small bump in donations that was meaningful, but the sincere and heartfelt responses to the break-in that reflected people’s connection to the PAFAC and its place in the wider community.
“What we heard was, ‘How dare they do this to a place that is so special,’” Loewe said. “People told us how this is not who we are and not what we are.”
Jason Thompson, the owner of Fogtown Coffee Bar and a manager at McCrorie Carpet One, was shocked and saddened when he learned about the break-in.
“When I heard about it, I had a lot of anger and I wanted to turn that into an actionable solution,” Thompson said. “I feel like we should be coming together when things like this occur.”
Thompson tapped into his social network by creating a Facebook fundraiser and seeding it with a donation of $50. Donations came in quickly in amounts ranging from $5 to more than $100, and the campaign exceeded its goal of $1,000 by raising $1,270.
Why the motion detection alarm failed to sense the intruder is another question that has not been answered. A subsequent test of the system determined it was functioning at the time of the burglary. Without going into specifics, Loewe said the fine arts center had increased security in and around the gallery.
Staff reacted quickly to the break-in and the gallery did not lose a single exhibition day. After a flurry of cleaning up broken glass, assessing damage, taking inventory of stolen items and reorganizing exhibit items, they welcomed visitors back on time and as usual April 21.
The fine arts center’s next exhibit, “Blooming Artists,” featuring the work of Port Angeles School District students, opens June 9.
“This happened,” Loewe said. “We hope it doesn’t affect our ability to bring these unique experiences here. It’s important to have these kinds of artistic opportunities for the enrichment of the community.”
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached by email at [email protected]